Jesus, Ethics, and Us

these are notes from a class presentation I gave in Ron Howard’s class The Ethical Analyst about ethics in Christian perspective

The Hidden Danger of Ethics Classes
There is a great but hidden danger in classes such as this. By spending hours debating moral issues we too often train ourselves for rationalization instead of righteousness. There is no point in trying to understand good unless we also seek to be good!

Why Should We Care What Christianity Says?
Today it is common to regard Christianity as morally bankrupt. This is nave and represents massive prejudice.

Christianity has proved and is proving its worthiness as a moral frameworkit has made the world a substantially better place (note: this could be construed as circular if you dispute the morality of the outcomes, but its irrelevant because Im merely attempting to demonstrate that Christian perspectives on ethical obligations should be taken seriously because they actually affect our lives on a daily basis).

More hospitals, orphanages, rest homes, and rescue missions have been built to honor Jesus than all other religious leaders combined. This is a direct byproduct of the Christian emphasis on compassion.

In America alone 128 colleges were constructed in our first 100 yearsall were founded by a church, denomination, or other Christian group. This is a direct byproduct of the Christian emphasis on love of truth.

Christianity has had a revolutionary impact on the theories of human rights. In every culture Christianity has entered the condition of women has been markedly improved and slavery has been or is being abolished. Think of an effective reformer and you are almost certainly thinking of a Christian (William Wilberforce, the North American abolitionists, and Martin Luther King, Jr. all come quickly to mind). This is a direct byproduct of the Christian emphasis on humans bearing the image of God.

Christianity is responsible for the vast majority of charitable giving in America. This is a direct byproduct of the Christian emphasis on generosity.

Even if you dont think much of institutional Christianity, you have to wrestle with the ethical teachings of Jesus and his followers. He was a world-class philosopher and is universally regarded as one of the greatest ethicists of all time.

What Distinguishes Right From Wrong? (Ontology)
Morality flows from God. This is not to say that God created morality arbitrarily nor to say that he is obliged by some external source to impose the laws that he does. Rather, it is to assert that morality is a part of who God is. God is moral just as we have a pulse. In a sense, we can consider morality to be a part of the divine DNA.

Biblically, love is the foundation of all morality:
34But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they thought up a fresh question of their own to ask him. 35One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: 36“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”

37Jesus replied, ” ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40All the other commandments and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22.34–40, New Living Translation

8Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9For the commandments, “do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other
commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Romans 13.9–10, New English Translation

Self-centeredness, the opposite of love, is the root of all wrongdoing (also referred to as selfishness or pride). This is counter-intuitive to many people, but is a logical consequence of admitting a Creator. In other words, posit that we and the entire universe are the design of a supreme being. We then cannot be the center of existenceeither He is or no one is. To make ourselves, our will, or our desires our guide for determining meaning or morality is to commit a factual error with far-reaching consequences. In addition, this supreme being is perfect in every way, and hence all rational moral beings will love the Creator.

That is why we should love God, so why should we love other people? Because other people are created in the image of God, and part of loving God is loving the image of God in them. Furthermore, they belong to the one we love, and so we ought to love them because they are His. Finally, we are debtors to God and as part of the condition for absolving that debt he requires that we love one another: If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4.20–21, NIV.

How Can We Know Right From Wrong? (Epistemology)
The problem with most ethical theories is precisely in the area of knowing right from wrong. Humans are nothing if not self-deceptive when it comes to making moral choices, and so we must always be cautious when reaching moral conclusions.

In Christian theology the ground of all morality is an all-knowing being who has chosen to reveal morality to limited beings such as ourselves (both through His world and His word), thus neatly solving the problem.

In addition, it allows for the vague moral precepts to have some definition. For examplethe injunction to love is meaningless without some common understanding of what constitutes love.

4Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. 6It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
1 Corinthians 13.4–7, New Living Translation

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3.16–18, New International Version

A Christian Perspective On High-Profile Moral Issues
Sexuality: Sexual intimacy is reserved for heterosexual covenant relationships (marriages).
Genetics: Our goal must be to heal, not to pervert. Unborn humans are people and have the same right to life as we do.
Copyright Issues (MP3s): The laws may be ill-considered, but they are laws nonetheless. Christians obey just laws (even those that are unwise, as long as they are not disastrous in their consequences). In a similar way, Christians pay their full taxes even though current tax laws are bad.
Poverty: Those who have are to be generous towards those who do not, but in such as way as to lift them out of their poverty and not to trap them in it. Having wealth is not immoral, but being driven by greed is.
Pacifism: Governments may use force both in the prosecution of domestic justice and in the case of just wars. This specifically includes the governments right to impose the death penalty.

How Can We Do Right And Refrain From Wrong? (Practicality)
Believing that right and wrong are more than arbitrary categories is the first step. Wisdom (wanting the right things and knowing how to attain them) and willpower (diligence, self-control) are also essential. In addition, there are certain habits we can acquire that will make us more likely to do right. For example, associating with people who value being moral and strive to improve themselves. Reading wisdom from the ages, and not merely from our peers. Thinking rigorously and questioning our assumptions.

But all that hits a wall: we cant be good on our own. Thats not to say that were each the epitome of wickedness, but rather to say that we have all fallen short of perfection and cannot attain it.

Bad News, Good News
We are all eternal beings, bearing the very image of God. That means that we each face an afterlife. To admit imperfect creatures to a perfect place is to make that perfect place imperfect. If the perfect place is eternal, then we have admitted an infinite amount of imperfection. God must dispatch us to one or the other, and we are not fit for Heaven. To make it worse, for Him to unilaterally change us (to make us perfect) would be immoral. That means were headed for the other placethe place of eternal imperfection.

There is a solution to this problemif we were to give God permission to change us he could make us perfect, and thereby justly admit us to the perfect place. This is precisely the foundation of Christianity. God promises that if we place our trust in Jesus He will begin a change process in us that will culminate at our resurrection from the grave. At that point we will be fit citizens of Heaven.

23All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. 24But God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins. 25–26God sent Christ to be our sacrifice. Christ offered his life’s blood, so that by faith in him we could come to God. And God did this to show that in the past he was right to be patient and forgive sinners. This also shows that God is right when he accepts people who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3.23–26, CEV